Friday, October 21, 2016

The Smells of “Home”

As many of you may have heard, or may not have heard, I am now back home in Alabama.  I have been medically evacuated for a series of issues ranging from security problems to my physical health to emotional health. To say the least, it’s been a rough few months. But rest assured, I am home safe and sound, and working to get back to Cameroon if my doctors, Peace Corps people, and myself decide that that’d be the right choice for me. 
            It’s been a whirlwind of changes over the last week.  They only decided to evacuate me the Friday before last, that Saturday I took the GRE test in Yaounde, then Sunday I went home, spent a wonderful last night in my house in Bamena, surrounded by some of my closest volunteer friends, who helped me get my house to an unknowing state of disorder and rest, we had a last spaghetti omelet in my village, where we were harassed and bothered by a very drunk old man who made me feel very sure that Peace Corps’ decision to send me home for a bit was the right one, and then Monday morning I travelled back to Yaounde to fly home on Tuesday. 

I got into Birmingham after 30 hours (not including the time it took to get from Bamena to Yaounde) of airport terminals, too small airplane seats, and reheated meals coming in paper or tin boxes “elegantly” spattered on to plastic trays.   Needless to say, it was a huge relief to finally arrive in the once familiar Birmingham airport.  My parents picked me up, and, following an old family tradition, we went straight to one of my favorite Birmingham Breweries: Avondale Brewing Company.  There I saw my good friend Dallas, who became a father in the time I’ve been gone! And I had my first on tap IPA on American soil in a year and a half. I deliriously sipped my beer and tried to focus on my parents’ faces as we chatted about something that I can’t remember.  I responded to all the questions I was asked, I think.  But I was, and have been since getting back, lost in sensations. 

          The upwards view from the patio in my backyard in Birmingham, Alabama 

It is incredibly bizarre to feel like you are coming home to a place not because the sights and people are the same, because many of those have changed over the time I’ve been gone, but because the smells are the same.  Alabama will forever hold the smell of humidity, and pine trees wrapped in warmth.  Vague wafts of barbeque and red clay, brewing hops, and green grass, and something that I don’t think I will ever be able to describe as anything more than just “that Birmingham smell”.  After so long away, I’d forgotten how wonderful those smells are. 
            Cameroon is a very pungent place, but in general I wouldn’t describe the smells of Cameroon as being particularly enticing.  I think that if I came from Cameroon I would find the smell of fufu and legumes, red palm oil, body heat, the giant jealousy flowers, , as welcoming as I suddenly found the smells in Birmingham, but of all the things I grew to love in Cameroon, the smells were never one of them. 

Adora: the "thing" from Cameroon I miss the most. 
Someone who often smelled like cheap soap, dirty clothes, mud, and smiles.
And the person I'm most scared I'll never see again.

            It has been so long since I’ve been constantly surrounded by thoroughly cleaned clothes smelling of dryer sheets, women with body spray and perfume, constant smells of shampoo and conditioner, and not to mention the smell of trees. Trees were everywhere in my village, but I never once distinguished their smells from the mass of dust, mud, and over-ripe guavas. My family keeps laughing at my over sensitive nose (this makes me a super smeller right?), but each person I walk by holds a different “scent” often somewhat chemical, with bits of flower or spice or something to it, as opposed to the varying degrees of body odor that my village friends sported. It is so wonderful to walk into my house in Birmingham and be greeted by the smells of my mother’s garden, roasted coffee, and an underlying smell of rosemary, mint, and basil.

My dog Bacchus staring off our back porch

            In the last week, I feel as though my eyes and mind have been lying to me.  With how quickly I made it home, I can’t quite convince myself that it’s real. Even with my mom’s arms wrapped around me, it seems like an elaborate dream.  The only thing that is keeping me from discounting it completely is the smell. When I start to panic about where I am, what I’m doing, whether or not I’ll ever make it back to say goodbye to Adora, or my friends, I need only take a deep breathe through my nose, and instantly I feel more at ease.
            I am sure this sensation will fade, and I will eventually readjust myself to the smells and sensation that make up home in Birmingham, but for the moment, I’m taking every smell as it comes.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Everything That's Trying to Kill Me

I am about to finish reading The Poisonwood Bible for the first time.  I think I would recommend it, although I really don’t know how much of it I would understand or be able to accept if I were not living here in Cameroon.  I think a lot of it would horrify me if I hadn’t already seen much of what the book describes (the poverty and daily life of the Congolese people, or some of their beliefs and traditions that I am slowly but surely trying to understand).  Modern day Cameroon is of course not exactly like the Congo in the 60s-80s, and my village with a large main paved road riding right through it, is not the tiny hidden bush village of Kilanga that the Price (lovely yet terrifying coincidence of names there…) Family found themselves in, but the observations of the Price girls resonate very much with my experience here, and the incessant guilt and insecurity of being a white girl in a country that is still struggling with the aftermaths of colonialism and contact with the Western world.

            I like to joke with my volunteer friends that this country is “literally trying to kill us all”, and a lot of the time that is what living here feels like for someone from the “temperate swamp-land” of Birmingham, Alabama. I have lived in places with extreme heat and humidity, and places of extreme cold and snow (Minnesota), but this country fights against the Western invaders in every way that it can.  The water is full of parasites and microorganisms ready to find their way into your blood and start eating your brain, the ground is full of chiggers and worms ready to burrow into your toes and start laying eggs under your skin.  The vines and vegetation grow faster than we can keep them back; constantly trying to reclaim the land we stole from them.  There are infections and diseases here that cannot actually be fought against, but only dealt with once they have already infected you. And lets not even go into the poisonous snakes, scorpions, spiders bigger than my fist, and spitting venom cockroaches, than protect every corner of this country.  In my last year, I’ve already had intestinal parasites, staph infections, and three chiggers (not like American chiggers: they burrow under your skin to lay their eggs, that then hatch and spread... I will spare you the pictures). But really, I’ve gotten off easy.  One of my close friends was sent home a month ago due to a severe mango allergy, a severe bamboo allergy, and malaria, (not to mention the stinging venom rash, scabies, and stomach worms that he dealt with) all of which kept him in and out of the hospital for about four months before he got sent home for good. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love this country most of the time.  It’s hard, but living here is a completely different perspective on the world.  The people of Cameroon are some of the most ingenious and strong people I will ever meet. They are faced with all of the same problems as those of us coming in for a brief spell, but they handle it all in stride. Death is a common occurrence here, and both children and old age are precious, as neither is easily achieved.  Every person in this country walks on a razor’s edge balance between nature and industry.  The trees are being cut down right and left for timber and firewood, roads are constructed between major cities, and every family strives for electricity and a television.  Yet, the trees and vegetation may disappear for a moment, but as soon as the rains arrive, they are back taller than the houses made from their forefathers, the roads are full of potholes and often become rivers with the heavy rains, and electricity and power are based on the whim of the drought and the storm;

“I am coming to understand the length and breadth of outsiders’ failure to impose themselves on Africa. This is not Brussels or Moscow or Macon, Georgia. This is famine or flood. You can’t teach a thing until you’ve learned that.  The tropics will intoxicate you with the sweetness of frangipani flowers and lay you down with the sting of a viper, with hardly room to breathe in between.  It’s a great shock to souls gently reared in places of moderate clime, hope, and dread.” – Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

Reading The Poisonwood Bible, I have developed a wish that I could have seen Cameroon before colonialism.  Before our western ideas of “civilization” and “commerce” were imposed on a society that was so incredibly developed in a different line from our own.  Every now and then I find myself thinking that my students will never be able to learn the lessons I’m trying to teach, or that my neighbors will forever be stuck in their “simple” way of life.  I hear my more educated Cameroonian coworkers commenting on the stupidity of the students or the people of the village, and the underdeveloped and “stupid” nature of all Cameroonians, but what upsets me the most is that all of this comes from a contact with the Western world.  The toy cars and water systems that my neighbors develop out of nothing but dried wood or mud and sand are incredibly complex and much sturdier than the imported tools and mechanisms.  The farming systems around me, and incredible uses of land baffle me.  Each one of my neighbors speaks at least 3 languages, although most speak closer to 6 or 7, even the young 3-4 year old children (and none of them can understand why I only speak French and English, and am struggling to learn the local language).  They may not be able to read, but their ability to immediately size up a pile of potatoes and give you a price high enough that by the end of 20 minutes of negotiating they will end up with a price that still gives the seller a net profit, but doesn’t lose them money, is more than I can ever hope to achieve. Their acceptance of death, paired with their sense of “unity” and “family” makes me consistently feel like the most selfish and self-involved person in the world. I am learning things from this country and it’s people that are impossible for me to really understand, even as I adopt the customs.  Learning the difference between someone asking me for money because I am white, or having mama Clemantine ask me for 2,000 CFA because we are family and her husband did not leave her enough today, is an incredible difference.

In teaching and working here, I often feel a sense of futility at what I am trying to impose upon my students: the English language and an understanding of different cultures and ideas, the importance of reading and education in making your way in the world, etc.  But what I keep coming back to is the sense that this is not America. In telling my students that if they have a good enough education and study hard enough, they can achieve anything, I am lying to them.  In this country, it requires so much more: money and good connections in a system built on bribery and corruption, the ability to not only move to a bigger city but also the luck to find a job there, the simple amount of money it takes to continue in education even just to high school.  I still, of course, encourage them to work hard and find their passion, but the entire education system and sense of commerce and “success” feel like western ideals that I am continuing to perpetuate in a country that may have been better off without us. 
 I am considered beautiful in this country because I have white skin.  My students and neighbors envy my sleek, black kindle, not because they are impressed with the amount of books I can carry around on it, but because it is an electronic device that looks “french” ...whatever that means. Having electricity and a tv within the house are more desirable than running water, because it connects them to the western world.  My fellow teachers and neighbors love to tell me things (generally wildly false) about the United States, and Europe, and what they imagine life to be like there. Despite my protests and calm explanations, it’s clear that they never fully believe me when I try to dispel their ideas that, for example, it never gets colder than 70 degrees F, that no one is poor or homeless, or that you can buy a Mercedes for what would be $50.  These are the ideas they have developed or been taught by the news and their Spanish tele-novellas.  The biggest insult I hear Cameroonians using against each other is “villageouis!” (directly translated as “village-y”), but it is in the villages that the true heart of Cameroon still thrives: the aspects that have not been shifted and modified by the need for better roads to transport goods or for a new Christian church.  It is in the village that the souls of the ancestors still live, and the totems (or spirit animals) still stalk their prey.  
This sounds very condescending and presumptive of me, and I am still working hard on not judging my surroundings based on my own western understanding of the way things “should be”, but I do wish that I could have experienced this culture and lifestyle before colonialism.  I am desperately curious as to what this life would be like: how colonialism and the introduction of Christianity and western ideals has shifted these people, how this country would have developed without our influence, whether it would be more of a global presence of its own accord or if it would still be it’s own world.  Of course, my presence would completely defeat the point of this “untouched” Cameroon, but I often have to wonder if my work here is merely a continuance of imposed ideas of “westernism” and colonialism: the benevolent American swooping in to save the poor lost and misguided souls of Cameroon.  I like to believe that I am helping my students and village for their own purposes, to help them survive in this country and this world, introducing new ways of thinking, and new ideas that may or may not help them, but how much of that is my own sense of self-importance and that what I believe is more “right” than what they believe? I do not think that women should be prevented from going to school or that children should be beaten so that they learn better, but how much of that was not originally Cameroon, but ideas brought in by colonialism and missionaries in the beginning?  In talking about woman’s “place” in the household, I often have the Bible quoted at me as reasoning.  When I speak out against corporal punishment, I am told that “Africans must be beaten or else they won’t learn”.  I have had many conversations with some of the well educated leaders of my village who give me articles written by professors at Cameroonian universities who have travelled and studied in Europe or the United States, that claim that the problem with Cameroonians is their inherent “African-ness”, that they are too lazy and unmotivated, and therefore destined to be forever left behind the rest of the world. When I argue against these ideas, and sight the issues of fewer resources and opportunities, the corruption within the government, or issues of poverty or imposed ideals, I am told I do not understand because I’m not “African”.

To be fair, I don’t fully understand. I do think that what the Peace Corps does is very important, and in general is a wonderful and idealistic organization.  In a perfect world, the Peace Corps would be superfluous and unnecessary, but despite my fears of imposing my ideas upon another culture, I believe that we are generally striving to do good.  I like to, perhaps very self-righteously and arrogantly, believe that I am not trying to change a country’s culture, but that I am presenting my students with different options and ways of thinking: not trying to force them into it, but giving them an option and allowing them to choose for themselves.  I am trying to instill the idea of critical thinking and observation into my students, not so that they will come around to my way of thinking, but so that they can make informed decisions about the paths their lives will take.  I do not want to tell my girls that they should not want to get married and have children, but simply give them a chance to take another path in life if they choose.

I can never fully understand the life my students lead, the daily trials of my closest friends here, the worries of money, food, floods, droughts, pregnancy, death, support, corruption, etc.  I am so privileged to be able to glimpse even a brief moment of the hardship in this country and walk away from it saying “wow, that sucks, thank goodness I was born somewhere else”, but I can never experience what it means to truly be Cameroonian.  I will never lead that life. I can only come in, and try to help where I think I can, and hope that my influence has not negatively impacted what it means to be Cameroonian, and if I’m lucky, I will have offered a new opportunity to one or two of my students.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Success in Failure

I am one of the editors and writers for the Peace Corps Newsletter, and this post was also in that newsletter, so the style may be a bit different, but it's still a pretty good look at some of the difficulties of Peace Corps life here. 

            Before I came to Cameroon, I met with three RPCVs who had served in different countries in West Africa, and each one of them started our conversations with the same two questions: “Why do you want to do Peace Corps?” and “What are you expecting to get out of this?”  Now, as I’m sure is the same with many of you, I got asked these questions a lot, and had my fail-proof responses all learned by heart and ready to go at a moment’s notice.  But it was different when the RPCVs asked these questions.  Each of them spoke with the same weary, and tentative tone, clearly holding back sights, as though they were afraid of what my answer might be.  Regardless, I hitched on my most confident and social smile and rattled away about changing my perception of the world and understanding different cultures, how Peace Corps opens doors otherwise closed, and about finding my true self, blah blah blah. And each RPCV answered my explanations with a knowing look and internal nod, and then allowed me to plunge into the fifty billion questions I had for each of them.
            Honestly, I never deluded myself with the idea that I would change the world through Peace Corps.  I’ve never been a big person for humanitarian or volunteer work, and Peace Corps did not appeal to me because of the idea of “giving back”.  All I wanted was to come to Cameroon, immerse myself in a different culture for two years, and come away from the experience with the knowledge that I was a strong, open-hearted, good person.  Or so I thought.  I never worried about whether or not I would make a difference in the lives of my future students, because I just assumed that my mere presence in a foreign classroom would be enough to excite my students into learning. I never once doubted the fact that I would easily be able to see the results of my service and my worth as a volunteer teacher in the improved grades of my students, the changed teaching styles of my teachers, and the revolutionized productivity and efficiency of my school’s administration.  As someone who spent two years teaching before coming to Cameroon, I was infallibly convinced that I would rock the world of my Peace Corps school.  Of course, this was not the case. 
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The sign signaling for the turn off to take for a few miles to get to CES Louh Tougwe, Bamena

            Within the first two weeks of the start of school, I discovered that my enthusiasm was taken as naiveté, and my assumptions that both my students and my school would worship the ground I walked on, were of course destroyed. I put hours of work into my lesson plans, only to arrive at school the next day to discover that they were useless.  By the end of the first grading period, I had been called into the headmaster’s office twice to discuss my progress, or lack thereof, with the national syllabus I’d been given for each grade.  And no matter how much I tried to explain that most of the students were not at the levels the syllabi required, the headmaster very firmly repeated that I must learn how to teach like a Cameroonian.  At the end of the second grading period, I found that most of my students’ grades had decreased rather than increased.  At the end of the third grading period, I learned that a few of my older students had complained to the headmaster about my teaching style, claiming that we played too many games in class and that I wasn’t disciplining the trouble-makers properly.  Needless to say, that discovery almost broke me.  I barely protested as the Headmaster informed me that he would be taking over my 3e and 4e classes, but that I could stay with 5e and 6e as whatever damage I did to their education could be undone in 4e and 3e.   And, to be honest, I was relieved.  I had come to dread teaching my 3e and 4e students, and with them taken away from me, I would have time to start working on secondary projects that I had all but neglected.
            So far, that third grading period has been the lowest point of my service.  I had spent hours and hours researching teaching methods, finding games and activities that might engage my students and help them understand, and in the end, I had failed them all.  I could see the disappointment in my headmaster’s eyes every time he looked at the Peace Corps volunteer that he had waited so long for. 
 However, within two weeks of only teaching 5e and 6e, I had 3e and 4e students seeking me out.  They had never tried too much to talk to me outside of class before, and most of my efforts to engage them in casual conversations had ended with blank stares and silence.  Yet, with their chance to talk to me in class taken away from them, many of them, especially the girls, began searching for me and trying to spend time with me outside of class and school. These students started approaching me in the market, at the boutique down the road, walking me home from school, introducing me to their families, inviting me to church with them, etc.  
Something in our relationship changed when I stopped being their teacher.  These students now talk to me about things that they would never mention to a teacher.  We talk about their children, the problems they’re having at home, what they hope to do once they pass the BEPC, questions I asked as a teacher, but that they did not feel comfortable responding to as my student.  When they ask me a question now, or seek me out for advice, they no longer fear that the hierarchy of the school administration will hear about it or that another teacher will harass them about what was said. 
Not only do these students feel more comfortable with me, but I feel more comfortable with them as well.  I am open to talking to them about my own personal experiences and feelings in a way that I would never have felt comfortable doing as their teacher.  They still respect me, even more so I think than they did before, and they are beginning to fully trust me, something I had given up hoping would happen. As the only female who works at my school, many of these girls see me now as the only adult they can confide in.  And none of this would have happened had I continued being the frustrated and disparaging teacher that I had become before. 
I still teach my 5e and 6e classes, and we now have even more fun, singing songs and playing word games to help them not just with English, but with literacy, world geography, math, etc., but I have had to learn that I cannot measure my success in Peace Corps through my school.  If I continue trying to do so, I will definitely walk away from Peace Corps feeling as though I had failed not only my students, but everyone that had believed that I might help someone here.  Instead, I’ve had to learn to base my success on small, every day interactions: a student asking me for advice, a parent telling me how much their child enjoys spending time with me, a smile from a girl who used to sleep through school.  I cannot measure myself by how much my students change academically and further their education, but instead by encouraging them when they don’t get encouragement elsewhere, advising them when they have questions no one else will answer, and trying to open them up to other perspectives of life. 

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Four students looking at a map of the world for the first time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bonne Fête All Month Long

February 17, 2016

Last week was a very big week for Cameroon.  Thursday was Youth Day or La Fête de la Jeunesse. In theory it is always on February 11, but in actuality, it takes up the full week.  Most schools cancel classes and create a schedule of games and celebrations involving not just our school, but the whole village.  Every night of the week, a different school presents students to perform: poem recitations, skits, dances to modern Cameroonian music, etc.  But since the principal of my school is constantly (and reasonably) worried about our students falling behind in their lessons, he stated, as he always does, that we would have school nonetheless.  Fortunately for everyone involved he did not hold to this and allowed classes Monday - Wednesday to let out everyday at 10 am.   Thursday was the national holiday, and no one tried to claim that school would be worthwhile on Friday, as none of the students would have come. 
The story of my first Cameroonian Fête de la Jeunesse really starts the week before, which was Bilingual week (la semaine de bilinguisme… a word I cannot get my mouth around no matter how many times I practice saying it in front of a mirror with my phone as a tape recorder).  That week, all of us teachers modified our classes to incorporate “bilingual” activities… as an English teacher, I didn’t have to modify much, but we did some fun drawings and map exercises to discuss why bilingualism is important, especially in bilingual Cameroon.  I had thought that the school would approach me about organizing a presentation by the students to present to the school, since every other English teacher volunteer I talked to was in charge of something for the big day of celebrations (Friday, February 5th), but, as usual, no one at the school approached me about anything.  So I just went about my business and had fun with my students. 
That Friday, the big day of celebrating, my principal asked me to come in at 10 for the bilingualism assembly.  I woke up that morning unsure as to what to expect, but got a text from my principal as I was heading out the door, giving the schedule for the day.  The “ceremony” would start at 11.  We would then have speeches and presentations from some of the students and teachers, and then we would judge the students on the dances and presentations they were hoping to perform for the village during Youth Week.  When I arrived at the school, only two teachers were present, neither of whom teach or remotely speak English.  The Principal was nowhere to be found, and the students were all being herded into one of the smaller classrooms. 

All the students at my school in the 6th grade classroom for Bilingual Day

At 12, the principal arrived, along with a woman who I’ve never seen before, either at the school or around the village, but who apparently teaches Cameroon culture and language to the students.  She showed myself and the other two teachers there the program she had set up for the day, as she’d be leading the festivities, and low and behold I was listed as giving a speech on the importance of English in the modern world. Surprise!  At 12:30, we finally started.  The woman introduced everyone (fairly pointless, as the school only has about 150 students at most and they all know all 12 members of the faculty, much less the only 4 of us who were present), and the principal gave a small welcome speech.  Then the students took turns singing songs in English, mostly consisting of chanting, “I am bilingual, I am Cameroon” over and over again, while swaying and slightly stepping back and forth in the Cameroonian manner of dancing.  Two of my students stood up and recited poems in English, and then the director gave another speech talking about the importance of our youth, and handed the floor over to me.  I managed to muddle through something along the lines of “English opens doors”, “bilingualism makes Cameroon strong”, and “learning other languages opens your mind and teaches you to think of others”, or something.  It wasn’t too too shabby, considering I had to give it in French and had been informed of it only ten minutes prior.  At the end, the unknown teacher-lady translated the message she thought I was trying to get across (“that you can only learn English through practice and perseverance.  Never be afraid to make mistakes because that’s how we learn”), and that’s how I found out that I was supposed to be telling the students how to learn English rather than why.  But, thankfully, soon after this, we finished the “ceremony”, and headed to another classroom to spend three hours watching the students present their skits and songs for youth week.  It was a long afternoon. 
Theater, I think, is not really a part of Cameroonian culture.  There is certainly a strong aspect of performance and “le spectacle”, but in all of the performances and skits that I have seen, acting is not one of the aspects required.  All the students presenting spoke in either shouted monotones or illegible whispered monotones, whether they were reciting a poem, speaking a monologue, or part of a skit.  Even in the dances, there was only minimal movement and shuffling of the feet as everyone involved starred fixedly at the ground.  But this seemed to be the style looked for, as these were the performances the principal applauded most fervently.  As a former speech and debate coach, and a theater junkie in the states, this style of performance KILLS me.  I was so proud of what my students had accomplished, but so disappointed at the lack of direction and leadership given to them by my fellow teachers.  Next year, I hope to help the students find their true voices, but I suppose that’ll have to wait for a little while. 
After three hours of sitting in a dull classroom, watching painfully shy performances in the local language that I don’t speak, I was finally allowed to go home.  These last three hours were all in preparation for Youth Week, and I have to say that they didn’t give me much hope. 


So fast-forward to Youth Week. My students were supposed to perform in the center of town on Monday, but instead performed on Tuesday, and there was a big soccer match on Wednesday, and etc. all leading up to the 11th on Thursday.  Thursday morning arrived and I had missed all the previous days’ activities due to miscommunications.  But I woke up early on Thursday, ready to go.  At ten, I walked into town with one of the other teachers at my school.  We arrived in the center of town to see all the streets roped off and hundreds of people and children running around in excitement, all dressed as nicely as can be.  When we arrived to the “salle des fêtes” (a set of stone stadium bleachers with a balcony for the chief and his “notables” that stands in the center of town) I was summoned to the Chief of my village by one of his guards who very brusquely nudged my co-worker along with the rest of the crowd.  I approached the Chief and shook his hands (realizing moments after I had done so that that is NOT the appropriate salutation for a Chief in public.  You are meant to bow slightly and clap three times… My Chief had never insisted on that with me, but I could tell that I startled all the surrounding observers with my forwardness and familiarity with the Chief) and he gestured to a seat of honor directly behind him that he’d apparently been saving for me. 
Being the only white person in a village, I have been given an undeserved place of honor amongst the traditional chief and his followers.  As a lowly teacher who happens to be white, I was placed before all the actually important people: the head of police, the head of the hospital, the country-wide government officials, the head of schools, and other hard-working Cameroonians who certainly deserve the honor more than I do, but that is how things are done here I guess. 
Anyway, I was placed immediately behind the Chief, with only a slight view as to everything that would happen.  Within an hour, the road was cleared with all the onlookers and “fêters” crowding around the edges, or sitting under tents lining the street, waiting for everything to start.  A man with a microphone began speaking, welcoming everyone and thanking the Chief and his notables for the celebration at hand.  He then turned on a very loud and scratchy old radio, and Monsieur le President Paul Biya’s very old and raspy voice spoke to us from the stand.  What President Paul Biya said, I don’t remember, if I ever knew.  His voice is very difficult for me to understand and follow, even on clear days, but I am sure that his long speech centered on how the youth are our future and how together we will fight terrorism and keep Cameroon strong.  After a good 45 minutes of his speech, the radio was turned off and the parade began!
First up were the preschoolers, each school coming up to stand in the street in front of the Chief’s balcony and performing something: a dance to “ça sort comme ça sort” or “coller la petite” (basically watching three year olds dance to “Bitches Ain’t Shit” by Dr. Dre), a recitation on how “les blancs” ruined Cameroon but now Cameroon stands together and strong against terrorism, or a skit on how cleanliness is the most important thing to fighting Boko Haram.  As each school finished their performance, the Chief and his notables would “faroter” the students, meaning they would stand up and present money to the students, usually putting the money in a bucket provided by the school, or, if they really enjoyed the performance, placing the money on the children’s foreheads, as is more traditional.  It was an odd thing to witness to say the least. 

Two preschoolers that I met after the ceremony was over

Once the last group of small children finished their performances, it was time for the middle and high schools to “march” or “defilé” for the village.  Each school lined up with a wooden sign proclaiming their school, forming lines and trying to look their best, marching with straight legged and armed, supposedly swinging in time to each other, the couple of yards down the street for the Chief and everyone assembled.  The bigger schools broke their students into the divisions they were studying (mechanics, fashion, refrigerators, engineering, hotel management, etc.), while my tiny school just marched as best they could. 
After the schools, there was a karate demonstration of some sort by about six old men, the women and men who work at our health center marched waving condoms blown up like balloons, President Biya’s village delegation walked by looking very serious, and then the Chief thanked everyone for coming and that was that.  As I was leaving, the Chief pulled me aside to tell me I was going to a party with him and the Chiefs of Bahouc and Bazou that night.  Bazou and Cristina would pick me up around 7-8.  Woohoo Chief party!
I quickly found the other teachers at my school and we all went to a bar for lunch (bread with boiled eggs and piment, the spicy sauce they put on everything) and beers.  I left as soon as I’d finished my beer and sandwich, but not quickly enough to avoid two of my co workers asking me to buy them beers and refusing to understand that I didn’t have the money to do so, because, of course, I’m white and therefore have lots of money all the time.  On my walk home, my Chief du cartiere (the chief of my neighborhood, as opposed to the whole village, he’s a sub-chief) who is also my village papa and the husband to my favorite Mama in village, called me into a bar to buy me a beer.  I agreed amiable, as I really love this old man, and we sat in the bar drinking together and chatting.  He’d been sitting a couple of rows behind me at the celebration and commended me on my place of honor, etc.  We talked and laughed a lot about everything in village.  It was one of those wonderful moments that made me remember why exactly I decided to be a Peace Corps volunteer, and why I haven’t given up yet, despite how frustrating and hopeless my work here often seems.  We had two beers together before I headed, very unsteadily, for my home.

My Neighborhood Chief and favorite Papa around

When I got home, I found Cristina waiting for me, and the two of us went inside and waited.  About four and a half hours later, her Chief, the Chief of Bahouc, knocked on my door to take us to the party.  For the first time since I’ve known him, Bahouc was driving.  He’s usually too intoxicated to do so, and I can’t say that that evening was too different, but he seemed at least a bit more cognizant than usual.  Regardless, we piled into his car and he drove us into the middle of town.  We stopped by the side of the road and met my Chief and the Chief of Bazou in their cars there.  Then, after an exchange of dialects between the chiefs, we hopped back into the cars and went… to someone’s house, where we sat for about ten minutes before going to a hotel that was closed, and then to a bar in the center of town.  At the bar the chiefs bought two bottles of red wine and poured us all water glass sized portions, chatted for ten minutes, and then commanded that Cristina and I finish our wine before we all piled into the cars for the fifth time that night. 

In order: My Chief (de Bamena), Cheif de Bazou, Chief de Bahouc (Cristina's Chief)
In the Bar just before they told us to chug our wine

This time, we went to the building that is kind of the community-meeting house of our village.  It was decorated with a disco ball and swirling colored lights.  Tables and chairs were set up all over, with two tables set up on a dais.  My Chief commanded all of us to wait outside so he could be sure that everything was set up and ready for us, and we all waited.  I think he also wanted to make sure that there were enough of the other, less important, guests present so that when we entered we would be noticed, but that’s just an assumption based on some of the comments my chief made. 

Waiting outside the hall, for my Chief to say it's okay to go in

Cristina and her Chief (Bahouc) as we wait

Finally, at 10:30 pm, we were allowed to enter.  The hall was still only about half full, but the Chiefs decided they wanted to sit down and keep drinking more than they wanted to make a grand entrance.  We were seated at a table on the dais with only the five of us (the three chiefs, Cristina, and myself).  At the second table on the dais, there was an assortment of people I didn’t recognize and never got introduced to.  Once at the table, we were given more red wine and continued to wait.  We chatted a bit with the Chiefs, but mostly they talked amongst themselves about Cristina and I.  We caught snippets of their conversation sounding along the lines of “it’s too late for Sarah since she’s already married (I tell people I’m married since it’s easier than arguing with them over why I won’t give them my phone number or go out with them or their male relatives), but that Cristina must marry one of us or one of our sons or other relatives to keep her from leaving”.  The best kind of conversation in Cameroon.  Right up there with how all women were put on earth by God solely to serve their father or husband. 

The view from our table on the dais

In the meantime, two men carrying microphones entertained the room with their dancing and lip syncing, occasionally stopping to introduce a new and important guest that had arrived.  Around 11, two long tables were set up, laden with Cameroonian food, and Cristina and I were asked to start the food procession, another one of those awkward honors for being born white.  But, we started the line, trying not too take too much, and very carefully choosing all of our dishes in an effort to avoid cow skin, chicken feet, tripe, and “baton de manioc”.  We sat back down and began eating.  Once our plates were mostly empty, they were cleared away, and the exhaustion set in.  We sat and sat and sat.  We asked the Chiefs if there was any chance we could head home, but they said we HAD to wait for the dancing to start otherwise it’d be rude.  So we sat some more.  At midnight, the last of the food was cleared away, and the announcers started their entertainment again.  They called all of us on the dais individually to the dance floor and put us in pairs.  Lucky for me, I was paired with a Priest from the other table on the dais, and we all opened the dance floor doing a kind of Cameroonian partners dance that was almost like swing dancing, but with no spinning or any other of the moves that makes swing dancing so fun, so I spun myself to the surprise of my partner and all the onlookers.  


We danced for a song, then more people were invited to join and we danced for a second song, then the floor was opened for everyone.  Cristina and I escaped back to our table to drink another glass of wine, then after realizing we’d both fall asleep if we sat anymore, we went back to the dance floor and rejoined the dance, forming our own couple for a bit before we were forced apart.  Then we retreated back to our table again.  Thankfully, after an hour or so of this, the Chief of Bahouc told us he would finally take us home if we were ready. So we quickly said our goodbyes to the other two chiefs, and all but sprinted out the door.  Luckily the chief of Bahouc this time realized that he was too intoxicated to drive, so he had one of the other chief’s chauffeurs take us back to my house, where Cristina and I instantly chugged bottles of water and collapsed into bed. 

All in all, la fete de la jeunesse was a very fun and interesting day.  A lot went on that I didn’t fully understand, and I wish that I had not already been so exhausted by the time we got to the Chiefs’ party, as I think I would’ve enjoyed myself a lot more.  When we left, the chiefs all promised they would take us out again on a day we weren’t both so tired.  I don’t know if this was a real invitation, or one of politesse.  Or, if it was a real invitation, if it was given in the hopes of finding a husband for Cristina, or because they liked being seen around out and about with the village white girls, or if they really do enjoy our company.  I’m guessing some combination of the three, which I realize may sound very cynical here, but that’s just the reality of our lives here. Regardless, I am looking forward to the next outing with our Chiefs, and the strange and foreign experiences that will bring.